Backers of tighter rules on Colorado oil and gas development struck out at the ballot box in November and at the state Supreme Court in January. Now, the Democrats who lead the state legislature are stepping up to the plate.
State House and Senate Democrats say they plan to introduce a sweeping bill in coming weeks to redefine the mission of the Colorado Oil & Gas Conservation Commission, which regulates the industry, placing a higher priority on public health and safety.
In addition, the measure is likely to seek to give local governments more control over incoming oil and gas permits rather than maintaining that oversight at the state level
“Local development and zoning are the bread and butter issues of local city councils and county commissions,” said Sen. Mike Foote, D-Lafayette. “Only oil and gas is exempt from that currently. They should have the same power [over that industry].”
Democrats have been talking about such legislation since the 2019 session opened, but their plans have been firming up lately.
The move most likely will be contained in just one bill rather than many, said House Speaker KC Becker, D-Boulder. A concerted effort is more likely to succeed, she said.
“That’s better than throwing spaghetti at the wall and seeing what sticks,” Becker said.
Working alongside Becker on the measure is Senate Majority Leader Sen. Steve Fenberg, D-Boulder, who said the state hasn’t passed any substantial legislation on oil and gas regulation in six years and spoke optimistically of the incoming bill.
“It’s actually probably the most meaningful reform that Colorado will have ever seen in oil and gas,” Fenberg said.
The legislation could be introduced into the House as early as March, Fenberg said. He and Becker anticipate opposition from the oil and gas industry.
The Colorado Petroleum Council trade group remains optimistic that incoming legislation will account for the diverse voices represented in the state’s energy field, said Tracee Bentley, the council's executive director, who announced Tuesday she will depart next month to lead an industry group in Texas.
“As ever, we stand ready to work collaboratively with the legislature to ensure that every voice is represented in the formulation of new laws, while protecting the 232,900 Colorado women and men whose livelihoods depend on the natural gas and oil industry,” Bentley said through a spokesman. “We are excited about the future of our innovative line of work and its ability to provide unprecedented opportunity to Coloradans from every walk of life.”
Meanwhile, Republicans in the legislature have been sounding the alarm about the risks of what some call "overreach" by Democrats on oil and gas.
"Attempts to stifle Colorado's energy industry hurts every person and company in the state," state Sen. Jerry Sonnenberg, R-Sterling, told Colorado Politics' Ernest Luning last month. "The oil and gas industry has done an excellent job navigating the toughest rules in the country to make sure we have heat in our homes, gas in our cars, and everyday products like our cell phones and computers."
Even if the Democrats' ideas have been proposed before, they’re still much needed, Becker said. For too long, she said, the state’s fossil fuel industry has been allowed to run rampant with old rules and regulations, putting public health and safety at risk and degrading air quality along the Front Range.
“The oil and gas industry just didn’t have the volume that it does now, it just didn’t have the technology that it does now and it wasn’t being pumped in the locations that it is today,” she said. “It hasn’t been dealt with.”
Voters in November defeated Proposition 112, which would have increased the buffer zone between buildings and new oil and gas operations to 2,500 feet from the current 500 feet around homes and 1,000 feet around schools. The industry argued the measure would decimate the state’s industry, costing jobs and seriously harming Colorado’s economy.
And the state Supreme Court in January ruled against a lawsuit that sought to establish health and the environment over oil and gas production as priorities for the Colorado Oil & Gas Conservation Commission in regulating the industry.
Instead, the court said that, under state law, the COGCC must "foster the development of oil and gas resources" and, in protecting health and the environment, must factor in whether such protections are cost-effective and technically feasible.
That ruling amounted to an invitation to change the law governing the COGCC's mission, Democrats said.
In addition to a shift in regulators’ priorities, Foote said cities and counties should be able to decide what oil and gas operations are allowed where.
“Local government should be able to deal with oil and gas development like they do anything else,” Foote said.
Despite conciliatory comments from the Petroleum Council's Bentley and others, Fenberg said he anticipates pushback from the industry with any new legislation.
“Pretty much any time oil and gas reform has been floated, the industry has often said it’s going to cost hundreds of thousands of jobs and bankrupt companies,” he said. “Some of it’s a scare tactic. That’s normal. That’s what happens in politics when someone’s trying to win a fight.”
Industry jobs must be taken into consideration, but health, safety and the environment are the most important factor in the equation, he said. “If they feel like they can’t exist or be economically viable without guaranteeing or taking every precaution to ensure health and safety for people, then there’s a problem."
Representatives of Colorado Rising, the group behind Proposition 112, have been working with legislators to craft the bill.
It’s a good start, said spokeswoman Anne Lee Foster, "but it by no means addresses all of the community’s concerns regarding residential drilling and fracking. We want the bill to pass, but this is definitely a base-level improvement as opposed to a comprehensive approach to addressing all of the issues.”
Still, COGCC standards must be changed to bolster enforcement standards, Foster said. The agency’s main concern should be regulation rather than promoting the industry, which is how its mission is currently interpreted, she said.
While local governments should control oil and gas development, Foster said problems can arise at that level.
Handing development and zoning control to local governments doesn’t do anything to quell the most pressing issue of climate change, Foster said. This is especially troubling because industry leaders have clearly communicated that they plan to harvest every last drop of oil and gas, she said.
Then there still remains the issue of setbacks, Foster said.
“This is coming to a town near you,” she said. “If you’re not impacted now, you will be in the future. This is something people need to pay attention to before their communities are impacted.
Additional legislation will likely be needed, Foster said, and the organization might bring forth another ballot issue to push a more comprehensive change to the industry.
Gov. Jared Polis -- who for years had sometimes frosty relations with the oil and gas industry and once proposed boosting setbacks -- sounded a more conciliatory tone during his gubernatorial campaign. Yet as governor, he has signaled that he is open to setting new priorities for energy regulation.
"We want to prioritize the consideration of public health and safety, as well as the environment," Polis told Colorado Politics in a statement last month. "We are ready to work with the legislature and the Colorado Oil & Gas Conservation Commission to ensure that Coloradans are safe and that residents and neighbors have a say in where and when industrial activities take place near where they live."